Assurance through Justification and Sanctification

By Matthew Honeycutt

Assurance of salvation would not be complete without a correct view of biblical justification.  Because Christ lived the perfect life that the law requires and died the death that all humanity deserves for breaking God’s law, all those justified by the righteousness of Christ by faith can have assurance. Christ did what no human could do for themselves. There are two things to note about the doctrine of justification: the union with and imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith, and the active and passive obedience of Christ.


One’s view of justification depends upon one’s view of atonement. Arminians who agree with the reformed view of atonement (penal satisfaction) agree that justification is by grace through faith. Justification is only possible when the penalty for sin has been paid for, which Christ has already accomplished. A believer can then be justified (declared righteous) by his or her faith in Christ. 

Union and imputation is how Christ’s righteousness becomes the believer’s righteousness.  What brings one into ‘union’ with Christ by the Spirit is one’s faith in Christ. By faith, Christ’s righteousness is then imputed, or credited, to the believer. Pinson notes, “It is as though Christ’s death is the sinner’s own death. … In this intimate union with Christ, His history (His righteousness and death) becomes our history, and our history (our sin) becomes His history.”[1]  And, Christ’s righteousness has, in turn, become the sinner’s righteousness. Forlines states these same truths succinctly when he says,

On the condition of faith, we are placed in union with Christ.  Based on that union we receive His death and righteousness.  Based on the fact that Christ’s death and righteousness became our death and righteousness, God as Judge declares us righteous.”[2]

Knowing that Christ has accomplished this all for the believer, and all that is required by the believer is faith, will bring strong assurance to the believer’s salvation in Christ.

The Active and Passive Obedience of Christ

            The active and passive obedience of Christ are highly important to securing continual assurance of salvation as well.  Without a proper view of these two aspects of Christ’s life and death, assurance would be difficult to maintain and be incomplete.

            It is important to note that atonement and justification are intimately linked together.  Atonement lies at the center of the doctrine of justification.  Christ’s active and passive obedience are two aspects of atonement, which falls under the heading of justification. 

The distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience is a simple one.  What is referred to as “active obedience” is Christ’s absolutely righteous life lived in complete obedience to the will of the Father.[3]  Christ’s “passive obedience,” on the other hand, refers to the death of Christ. Christ submitted Himself to the wrath of God for the sins of humanity.

In theological and pastoral circles, the passive obedience of Christ is unfortunately emphasized more than the active obedience of Christ. However, the believer’s justification requires both.  The believer is justified because of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience, His perfect life.  This is a perfect life no human in Adam’s race could live except Christ (Rom. 5:8-21). And, the believer is justified because of the imputation of Christ’s passive obedience, His vicarious death.  Christ has carried the burden and done what humanity cannot do or does not have to do.  Once again, assurance is strengthened by these facts when understood. 


            The assurance of many believers is primarily weak, and at risk, due to a misunderstanding of the doctrine of sanctification.  A proper understanding of this doctrine will be sure to activate and strengthen the security of the believer.  There are two important truths to note: the Holy Spirit’s work of “positional” and “progressive” sanctification, and the believer’s part in the process of sanctification.

The Holy Spirit’s Work of Positional and Progressive Sanctification

            The Greek word translated ‘sanctification’ (hagiazo, hagiasmos) literally means “holiness.” Thus, to sanctify means “to make holy.”[4] God is holy and demands that all in relationship with Him by faith in Christ also become holy. Holiness is the driving force in the doctrine of both positional and progressive sanctification.  Positional sanctification takes place at the same moment of justification in the Arminian ordo salutis.  Justification is what makes sanctification possible as sanctification depends upon justification.[5]  Justification, however, is possible only through the death and righteousness of Christ as discussed above.  Brower captures the relationship between justification and sanctification when he cogently states that “…sanctification is based on the historical reality of the atoning death of Christ which is brought to experiential reality by the Spirit.”[6]

The Believer’s Work in the Process of Experiential Sanctification

            In, A Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists, ‘sanctification’ is defined as “the continuing of God’s grace by which the Christian may constantly grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[7]  God has allowed the believer to take an active part in his or her experiential sanctification in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.  The apostle Paul made an important distinction about experiential sanctification in the letter to the Philippians when he stated, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

The Holy Spirit is the one working within the believer to accomplish sanctification.  At the same time, the believer has the task of doing good works, living in holiness, and remaining compliant to the Spirit throughout the process by obedience to biblical teaching.  This is what Paul meant when he charged the Philippian believers to “work out” while God “works in.”


Depending upon the believer’s obedience the process can sometimes be a process of growth and decline.  However, there must be more growth as opposed to more decline.  In addition, continual obedience is a mainstay for continual assurance.  If a believer understands and is committed to this process by remaining submissive to the Spirit’s leading, and pursuing holiness in discipleship, then assurance will occur naturally.  Only then will true assurance of salvation be attained and maintained.

[1] J. Matthew Pinson. A Free Will Baptist Handbook: Heritage, Beliefs, and Ministries (Nashville: Randall House, 1998), 59.

[2] F Leroy Forlines. The Quest for Truth: Theology for Postmodern Times (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 196.

[3] F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House, 2011), 205.

[4] Bradford A. Mullen, “Sanctification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 708.

[5] Forlines, Quest, 217.

[6] K. E. Brower, “Sanctification, Sanctify,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al. (Leicester; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 1058. (Gal 3:2–5; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 1:13–14; Tit 3:4–7).

[7] Treatise of the Faith and Practices of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (Nashville, 2013), 12. See also 1 Thess 5:23; 2 Cor 7:1; 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 6:1; 1 John 5:4; Col 4:12; Prov 4:18; 1 John 1:7, 9; 1 Pet 1:16; Gal 2:20.

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